Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has put a hold on Deborah Lee James's nomination for secretary of the Air Force. (Mike Morones / Staff)
WASHINGTON — Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has placed a hold on the White House’s nominee for Air Force secretary, blocking the confirmation process of Deborah Lee James until questions are answered regarding potential cuts to the A-10 Thunderbolt attack aircraft, according to an Ayotte aide.
“Yes, she has placed a hold until she gets answers on the A-10 issue,” the aide told Air Force Times’ sister publication Defense News late Wednesday. “She (as ranking member of the readiness subcommittee) views this as a readiness issue. Until we have a replacement for the A-10, why would the [Air Force] try to eliminate it? She isn’t necessarily saying we must retain the A-10, but wants to ensure there isn’t a capability gap that could result in lost American lives.”
Ayotte, whose husband Joe was an A-10 pilot, raised the issue of cutting the Thunderbolt fleet during a Sept. 19 hearing on James’ nomination in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“What makes me concerned is that there already has been a decision made on the A-10 and as you and I talked about in our meeting, the A-10 has a very important function in terms of close-air support and in fact, most recently in July, 60 soldiers were saved in Afghanistan because of the important close-air support provided by the A-10,” Ayotte said.
In response, James insisted that no final decision had been made on the A-10. While that official line has been repeated by Air Force officials, sources have told Defense News that the service is considering cutting the entire A-10 fleet.
Proponents of cutting the A-10 argue its close-air support mission can be done with other platforms and point out its mission is less relevant as the Air Force turns towards the Pacific region, but the platform is a political minefield. It remains popular with the Reserve and National Guard branches of the Air Force, and has supporters in the Army, who views its mission as critical for the defense of ground troops.
At last week’s Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md., top Air Force officials sent clear signals that the A-10 fleet is likely on the chopping block as the service struggles to deal with steep budget cuts.
Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of Air Force Air Combat Command, said while he doesn’t want to lose the A-10, it would be a logical platform to be done away with.
“In a perfect world, I would have 1,000 A-10s,” Hostage said at the conference. “I can’t afford it. I can’t afford the fleet I have now. If I cut the fleet in half, do I save enough to get through this problem?
“My view is, while I don’t want to do it, I would rather lose the entire fleet and save everything I do in the infrastructure.”
The need to eliminate whole platforms, particularly single-role platforms, was echoed by both Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning.
“Everything is on the table,” Fanning said during the conference. “We’re trying to protect a few of the main programs, but we are looking most closely at single-mission fleets.”
Officially nominated Aug. 1, James would become the second female Air Force secretary in service history. She is president of the technology and engineering sector at Science Applications International Corp., and previously served as assistant defense secretary for reserve affairs from 1993 to 1998.